29 DOUBLE TROUBLE
Released in the USA June 1967
Released in the USA October 23 1967
Back in the 1960s and 1970s British entertainment was dominated by a comedy duo called Morecambe and Wise. The British public liked them because Morecambe and Wise were more than funny. Morecambe and Wise had no airs and were unpretentious and likeable. One of their less famous comic sketches had Morecambe and Wise pretending to be boxers. These two boxers were so well drilled in technique and defensive skills they were able to go through a boxing contest without punching one another. In between rounds one and two the two boxers argued about which corner belonged to whom. The two boxers lost their tempers, fought and threw punches. Their brief combat was interrupted by the bell beginning the next round. The two boxers retreated to their original positions in the ring where they again refrained from punching one another. A month before Elvis recorded the soundtrack album for Double Trouble he had produced his gospel album. Like the Morecambe and Wise boxers that had remembered their innate aggression, Elvis had rediscovered his passion, commitment and substantial talent. But back in a studio to record a couple of movie soundtracks Elvis held his fists high in front of his face.
Nor did he want to be in the ring. Separate three day sessions were booked in the Radio Recorders Studio in Hollywood for the two movies Double Trouble and Clambake. Elvis appeared late on the first day of both sessions. The MGM producers of Double Trouble reckoned that if Elvis could not be bothered to turn up on time neither were they willing to pay for the extra expense of the Radio Recorders Studio. After a less than successful first day of recording the location was switched by MGM to their Hollywood sound stage. As the Girl Happy album had previously demonstrated a Hollywood sound stage was fine for soundtracks in cinemas but ruinous when transferred to albums that would be played on home sound systems. Not that it made much difference. In the middle of the boxing ring Elvis was doing anything but throwing punches. And that was when he was present. Elvis may have been the conqueror that had redefined pop music in the 1950s and the early 1960s. Now he was too willing to claim injury and retreat. On both the Double Trouble and Clambake recording sessions Elvis again overdubbed vocals on some of the instrumental tracks.
The year 1967 had begun with Parker redefining his financial relationship with Elvis. The Colonel decided it would be a good idea for RCA to no longer make advance payments to Elvis for his recordings. In exchange for this Elvis would receive a higher percentage of royalties. The cute trick came next. Parker maintained the ratio of his cut from the royalties at 50%. Salaries and advance payments only yielded Parker 25%. But by changing the terms of the contract between RCA and Elvis the three card trick Colonel had increased his percentage share of the income of Elvis. Whether Elvis had protested is not known but if he had then Parker would have had an answer. Well before the Colonel met Elvis, the country singer Ernest Tubb had been approached by Parker. Tubb said no to working for Parker. ‘He was a con man,’ said Tubb, ‘and con men have to con everyone including their own meal ticket. It is their nature.’ These remarks, of course, evoke the tale of the scorpion and the frog. This is it. A scorpion asks a frog to carry him across the river. The frog says no because the scorpion will sting him and he will drown. The scorpion protests, ‘If I sting you and you die, I will drown as well.’ The frog agrees to carry the scorpion. Halfway across the river the scorpion stings the frog. ‘Why did you do that,’ says the frog? ‘We will now both drown.’ ‘I know,’ says the scorpion. ‘It is my nature.’
On the Double Trouble and the Clambake albums Elvis did not croak like a frog but he sang as if his spirit was poisoned. There are moments when the self-conscious embarrassment of previous movie albums appears to turn to self-disgust. The movie songs on the two albums are uninspired but there were a few numbers that Elvis could have made into something decent if he had been alert or at least more alert than when the Colonel slipped in his revised contract. The plummeting record sales had panicked the Colonel, and he was pleased that in Double Trouble the role for Elvis was as a nightclub singer. Yet none of the songs from that film sounded contemporary or fresh but, as he had on the Spinout album, Elvis wasted opportunities. He was entitled, though, to be disillusioned. The two novelty songs in Double Trouble were appalling. Elvis walked out of the studio rather than complete the recording of an updated version of Old MacDonald. The half completed recording was still included on the album. Neither were the bonus songs great. Three were taken from the 1963 album that had never been released. The Don Robertson song was superior to the rest. What Now, What Next, Where To, may have been a pop tune but the song and the smooth vocals from Elvis were a reminder of when his efforts had authority.
Like the scorpion, I was discovering that my nature was more complicated than I had understood living in a village on the outskirts of Liverpool. The second half of the 1960s were troubled times. Hippies had colonised San Francisco. In the Golden Gate City and elsewhere there was hair everywhere. The Hair musical was in development as early as 1966. In that same troubled year I was enrolled in a University that was more troubled than most. Radical politics were the norm. My own politics were left wing but they were rooted in working class grievances rather than utopian dreams. Like many, I struggled to adjust to an adolescent culture that accommodated an institutionalised self-serving meritocracy while simultaneously advocating egalitarianism. And like the scorpion, I should have held my sting but I did not. The troubled times encouraged the truculence and the controversialist that had been on standby in my nature. Neither convinced by the people around me nor persuaded by the music they liked I stayed with what my mother had advocated, the music of the American South. That music and Elvis helped me retain some links with my past.
Even without unfashionable Elvis to defend I had enough to challenge and confront. But if I was ever short of subjects, there was always his artistic potential to debate. I felt obliged to fight his corner which was not easy in the year that The Beatles released Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Arguing for me became a habit. Most students drink too much and are tempted by japes. In this I was the equal of most. I became a celebrity in the small world of a University that had a notorious reputation. I remained at University for three years and enjoyed being infamous. But, as Elvis could have told me if we had ever met, having a reputation or being a brand makes its demands. I was blessed with parochial celebrity but unable to settle into academic discipline.
In September 1967 my University career was a year old but I was already in trouble and attending disciplinary hearings. In that month Elvis visited the RCA recording studios. Encouraged by what he had achieved when he had recorded his gospel album the year before Elvis made tentative steps to recording what he had avoided for four years, a studio album of new material. He recorded nine songs. As Elvis had five non-gospel songs available from the sessions that produced How Great Thou Art he had enough material for something decent that would have rescued his reputation. The album was never released. Instead the songs were either used to supplement the remaining soundtrack albums or ignored. The recording session in September 1967 of studio material had been intended for a month earlier but Richard Davis, a member of the Memphis Mafia, had accidentally killed a pedestrian. Parker decided that Elvis should be bundled out of town to avoid unwelcome publicity. The two days of sessions that produced the nine songs had originally been planned to be three.
Four of the nine songs recorded in September 1967 were used as bonus tracks for the Clambake album. All the tracks have merit. Big Boss Man was a welcome and successful return to the blues. Just Call Me Lonesome qualified as hard core country. One bonus song on the Clambake album had been intended for the film but could not be integrated into the screenplay. How Can You Lose What You Never Had was not without potential. It belonged to the crude barroom jazz that Frank Sinatra had delivered in his version of That’s Life. Elvis lacked the will to master How Can You Lose What You Never Had but the track is not without appeal. The movie songs included a passable if not inspired version of the classic You Don’t Know Me. A House That Has Everything was a typical movie ballad but, as he had with the material on Blue Hawaii, Elvis delivered a performance that lifted the song. The two uptempo tunes were cheesy but there were brief hints from his vocals that Elvis remained capable.
If the movie songs and the performances were disappointing, one music critic acknowledged the merit of the bonus songs. The opening track to the Clambake album was the classic Guitar Man. That alone was sufficient to spark interest. Clambake was a terrible movie, Elvis regarded it as his worst, and the album, if it had been released by others, would have been condemned by the critic for its failures. The highlights would have been ignored. But after the relentless dross of the previous four years, the album suggested that a door was being opened by Elvis. The opening was no more than a slight gap but there was evidence of light. The positive evidence may have been sparse but what there was contained promise. No one, though, was anticipating the transformation that would occur a year later.
Howard Jackson has had eleven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Offended Shadows is now available here.